I’ve spoken in previous blogs of the important role conferences, trainings and seminars can play in changing the culture of a community. On Sept 25, 2013, Ashland hosted the sixth annual Respect, Success, Value and Purpose Conference (RSVP). This conference was started by a well-known consumer advocate and head of the local mental health and addictions authority. Over two-hundred consumers, professionals and family members attended the conference and were treated to dynamic speakers throughout.
Doctors Courtenay Harding and Sue Estroff both provided keynotes and breakout sessions. Dr. Harding’s work is particularly critical, as it was one of the first to convincingly demonstrate that what is labeled Schizophrenia is not, nor does it need to be, a life-long debilitating diagnosis. The Vermont Longitudinal Study flew in the face of modern notions of what was possible for people with this label. Dr. Harding reviewed the research and focused passionately on the importance of work or other meaningful activity as curative in and of itself. Being able to answer the all too common question, “What do you do?” builds self-worth and a sense of community.
Dr. Sue Estroff pulled no punches. She challenged the audiences in both her keynote and breakout to think critically about mainstream views of biological psychiatry and the role and messaging of Big Pharma. She pointed out the “blindness” of researchers as they engage in research in such a way that it fulfills preconceived notions or theories. Dr. Estroff pointed out that conversations about coercion, involuntary commitment, violence and safety were difficult conversations but conversations that must happen. A favorite moment was when Dr. Harding discussed “shared decision making.” Dr. Harding’s view is that decisions should be made by the person seeking help and by them alone. The person seeking help should direct services. There is no sharing with the professionals unless it is to share the decision made by the person! The audience was asked how often they invite strangers to “share” in critical decisions involving their own lives. Dr. Estroff would be a natural on MIA.
In addition to our powerful keynotes, we invited local/regional speakers who supported the reform efforts underway for many years now. What seemed most impactful to me was the impact on attendees and the conversations that were occurring throughout the day. Many attendees were hearing alternative approaches/views to mainstream biological psychiatry for the first time. Others have been coming for years and are now bringing their friends, colleagues and families. In some instances, former attendees are now breakout presenters. In short, I saw the ability of the conference to change minds, to offer hope and provide resources to go in new directions.
I want to encourage those readers who are in positions to participate in or hold conferences like these. Our conference planning committee meets regularly over the course of 10 months prior to the conference. The committee consists of persons with lived experiences of emotional distress as well as professionals and families. The work is formidable but the results … the payoff … man it is worth it! I don’t believe we would have been able to achieve as much reform as we’ve seen if it wasn’t for the annual conference. In a month or two, the group will reform, evaluate the results of the last conference, celebrate and begin planning for our seventh annual event! One of my boss’s favorite quotes is from Margaret Mead and goes: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Change the world by changing your community. Get involved with your local mental health/addictions planning authority and challenge them to hold a conference worthy of MIA!
Harding CM, Brooks GW, Ashikaga T, Strauss JS, Breier A (1987). “The Vermont longitudinal study of persons with severe mental illness, II: Long-term outcome of subjects who retrospectively met DSM-III criteria for schizophrenia”. American Journal of Psychiatry 144 (6): 727–35.
Estroff, Sue E. Medicalizing the Margins. Reprinted in: Classics of Community Psychiatry: Fifty Years of Mental Health Outside the Hospital. Rowe, M. et al. eds., 2011, Oxford University Press. Pp. 305-309.